ELECTORAL CHANGE – Prop rep system breeds unstable governments


B.C.’s electoral reform referendum could lead to more shaky coalitions and less effective government

University of Windsor

SOME SEE THE UPCOMING B.C. referendum on electoral reform – whether the province should switch to a proportional representation (PR) voting system – as a blatant attempt by the B.C. Green Party to secure more power.

While it’s clear that under any form of PR, the Greens could increase their seat share, there would also be more single-issue parties vying for seats in the legislature.

Lydia Miljan.

In B.C.’s current first-past-the-post voting system, it’s difficult for single-issue parties, and new parties, to garner enough support to get electoral seats. As a result, political actors tend to compromise and form coalitions within existing parties. Big tent parties such as the Liberals and NDP are basically coalitions of various interests.

Because the threshold for securing seats is lower in PR systems (usually about five per cent of the popular vote), they result in more political parties competing for support. PR systems reduce the need to compromise within parties before an election. While there are 18 registered political parties in B.C., only three (Liberal, NDP and Green) have seats in the legislature.

Because new and single-issue parties have a greater chance of being elected under PR, an international measure known as the “effective number of parliamentary parties” (or ENPP), is higher in PR systems than in majority and plurality systems like we have in Canada.

In countries worldwide, the average number of effective parties in first-past-the-post systems is 2.5; under PR systems, that number doubles to 4.5. And there’s a lot of variability depending on the country. For example, while PR systems in Portugal and Greece have similar ENPP as Canada, countries such as Israel (7.5) and Belgium (eight) have higher ENPP.

The consequence of a higher ENPP is twofold: more coalition governments and more unstable governments.

Of course, coalition governments can occur in any electoral system. B.C. essentially has a coalition government now of the NDP and Greens.

However, the likelihood of coalition increases significantly in PR systems. Between 2000 and 2017, 23 per cent of majority/plurality systems (including first-past-the-post) produced coalition governments compared to 87 per cent for PR systems.

For mixed systems, which combine aspects of majority/plurality with aspects of PR, it was even higher at 95 per cent.

PR systems also have more parties as part of government, averaging 3.3 parties compared to 2.6 for mixed and 2.3 for majority/plurality systems.

Why is this a problem?

Because more coalition governments mean more unstable governments and more uncertainty about the composition of those governments.

Coalition building is done after the votes are cast and it often takes a long time to work out deals between coalition partners. Based on the research, it takes 32 days (on average) for a government coalition to emerge in mixed systems and 50 days for PR systems.

After its 2010 election, it took Belgium 541 days to form government – the longest wait on record at the time. Germany went 161 days before forming government after its September 2017 election. And Northern Ireland is 590 days and counting without a government since the coalition Catholic-Protestant power-sharing administration collapsed in January 2017.

Some proponents of PR argue that this form of electoral system better represents the diverse views of voters. Their logic is that the negotiation of coalition governments allows for more viewpoints and that this process produces policy closer to what the median voter wants.

But negotiations after the vote aren’t based on popular will, but on whether a party can prop up a government.

More importantly, coalition governments make it difficult for voters to hold governments to account, as it becomes difficult for voters to clearly assign blame or credit. At the same time, voters are given limited options during elections and can only use their vote to punish or reward governments for their policy decisions.

These findings suggest that, at the very least, debates surrounding electoral reform in B.C. must be expanded.

And the current government and citizens should consider a broad set of evaluative criteria – much broader than the referendum ballot that voters will receive in the fall – when determining whether to change B.C.’s electoral system.

Lydia Miljan is an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor.

© Troy Media

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6 Comments on ELECTORAL CHANGE – Prop rep system breeds unstable governments

  1. Ian M MacKenzie // September 23, 2018 at 7:58 AM // Reply

    “And the current government and citizens should consider a broad set of evaluative criteria – much broader than the referendum ballot that voters will receive in the fall – when determining whether to change B.C.’s electoral system.”
    So says Miljan in her final paragraph. Well, in my long life and almost zero representation by FPTP, the current government need only consider one criteria – – – and that is the one achieving a better democracy for all. How to achieve it? Make every popular vote count equally! No more of this disguised dictatorship where a 40% minority calls their support a majority. Once the average voter gets his head around that single electoral fact he’ll wake up in horror at being bamboozled all his life. That one fact should be enough to persuade any thinking person to change B.C.’s electoral system so we achieve true representative democracy.

  2. Effective government… and what’s that? Are 16 of B.C. Liberals “effective government”? This is not a valid argument at all to discourage against PR.

  3. Mel; Here is some history to consider regarding how ProRep has mitigated extremism.
    The degree of extremism in a country is not due to its electoral system.  All countries today are seeing a rise in support for the radical right and what most correlates with that are financial crises and income inequality. Canada maybe less so than Europe and the US but wait for it if we have a big recession.  After financial crises there is historically a spike in support for far right parties at the expense of the centre, while the vote for the left stays steady.  (Funke, Schularick, Trebesch, 2015).
    In 1945 in occupied Germany a proportional voting system was introduced by the Allied military commander tasked to run the country.  A British political scientist recommended ProRep as best to guard against rise of another Nazi party.  It has worked – even with the recent rise in support for AfD (from <10% to 17% of vote, the center right Christian Democrats CDU and center left Social Democrats SDP (each with ~30% of vote), will not enter a coalition with the AfD. Germany's rise of support for right wing extremists is due to after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis, subsequent Eurozone debt crisis, and compounded by a backlash against migration. In Germany and Sweden ProRep has moderated the influence of extreme right parties and helped prevent extremists overtaking the main centrist parties. The greater transparency on extremists (and all parties) that comes with proportional systems, helps mitigate against extremist's electoral success becoming real legislative power.
    In FPTP countries extremist individuals hide their real positions, but stay in the main parties, as that is the path to power.  A US Republican Party in chaos due to a Tea Party revolt was ripe for take-over; it happened; same in Ontario.  Brexit also has lessons in how extreme elements that hide in parties in FPTP countries, can become wild cards.
    Minority governments which have happened regularly federally in Canada gave us OAS, CPP, Medicare, the Canada Flag, The Accountability Act, and the few years of debt pay-down (versus deficits) ever seen in the past four decades. The legislation lasted and some of it are key to how Canadians define themselves. This legislation involved seemingly inefficient lengthy inter-party negotiations; so what – such legislation has lasted. Whereas much of the omnibus bills passed by very "efficient" majorities with whipped MPs without discussion ends up overturned a few years later. Effectiveness trumps efficiency.

  4. Having read and listened to both sides of the Referendum debate, I have NEVER heard the BC Greens us the term ‘more power,’ but have definitely heard that from the predominantly Liberal opposition to PR… I have heard the BC Greens, both Adam Olsen & Sonia Furstenau say that their role in the legislature is one of ‘More Responsibility & More Accountability.

    The Liberals have repeatedly said there’d be less majority governments, which is really a red-herring because since the mid 1950s BC has only had ONE true majority government where the governing party actually earned over 50% of the popular vote. All the rest have been ‘False Majority’ governments whereby a party got LESS than 50% of the popular vote but got more than the majority of seats in our current system.

    As for minority, ‘fringe parties’ cropping up, the Attorney General has set a threshold of 5% before a party gets a seat (similar to other PR countries). In the last Federal election, all the single-issue ‘fringe parties’ in total (about 12 – 15) didn’t earn 1% of the popular vote combined. Just another red-herring by the fear-mongers.

    As for negotiations and coalition governments being a bad thing, I have to disagree. All that Canada is proud of, the lasting legacies of minority governments such as our Maple Leaf Flag, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Pension, Universal Health Care and Student Loans are just a few that were negotiated under minority, or coalition governments.

    I am looking forward to a modernized system through whichever Proportional System is chosen that will encourage negotiations, cooperation, and collaboration rather than this bullying, adversarial system with the usual mud-slinging during the campaign period.

  5. Sean McGuinness // September 22, 2018 at 10:29 AM // Reply

    What does Dr. Miljan mean by “stable gov’t”. I suppose “stable” in this setting means forming a gov’t with 40% of the popular vote and 65% of the seats in parliament. No coalition necessary here to “prop up a gov’t”. Mussolini had a stable gov’t. If one needs a clearer target to aim at when things go wrong, well then we should just opt for a dictatorship.

    What’s wrong with “a blatant attempt by the B.C. Green Party to secure more power” when they get 16% of the vote and only 3 seats in the legislature?

  6. Miljan needs to clearly define what she means by “government instability”. Having the people’s voice proportionally represented in government should not be an existential problem, unless you want your point of view to have more representation.

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